Such is Life: Being Certain Extracts from the Diary of Tom Collins. Joseph Furphy's title gives an indication of the complexity of the narrative that will unravel before a persistent reader. In chapter one, the narrator, Tom Collins, joins a group of bullockies to camp for the night a few miles from Runnymede Station. Their conversations reveal many of the issues that arise throughout the rest of the novel: the ownership of, or control of access to, pasture; ideas of providence, fate and superstition; and a concern for federation that flows into descriptions of the coming Australian in later chapters. Each of the characters provides a portrait of bush types that Furphy uses to measure the qualities of squatters and others against popular ideas of the 'gentleman'. Furphy's choice of a narrative structure to create a 'loosely federated' series of yarns is itself a critique of popular narratives populated by stock characters who are driven by action that leads to predictable and uncomplicated conclusions. Tom Collins, the unreliable narrator, adds further complications by claiming to 'read men like signboards' while all the time being unknowingly contradicted by circumstances that become obvious to the reader.
In each subsequent chapter Tom Collins leads the reader through a series of experiences chosen from his diaries. In chapter two, Collins meets the boundary rider Rory O'Halloran and his daughter, Mary, a symbol of the coming Australian whose devotion to her father will have tragic consequences in chapter five. There are many links between chapters like this one that remain invisible to Collins, despite his attempts to understand the 'controlling alternatives' that affect our lives. In chapter three Tom loses his clothes crossing the Murray River and spends the night wandering naked until he is able to steal a pair of pants after diverting attention by setting fire to a haystack. In chapter four Collins helps an ailing Warrigal Alf by deceiving several boundary riders who have impounded Alf's bullocks. In chapter five, among other yarns of lost children, Thompson completes the tragic tale of Mary O'Halloran, connecting with the events of chapter two. Chapters six and seven take Tom Collins back to Runnymede Station where he attempts to avoid an unwelcome union with Maud Beaudesart. He also meets the disfigured boundary rider, Nosey Alf, whose life story Furphy has threaded throughout the narrative, signs not perceived by Tom Collins. When Collins returns to Runnymede at the end of the novel, Furphy ties up more loose narrative threads, but Tom Collins, the narrator, remains oblivious to the end.
In short, Such Is Life 'reflects the preoccupations of [the 1890s]: contemporary capitalism, ardent Australian nationalism, the difficulties of pioneering pastoralism, and speculation about a future Australian civilization. It was instantly seen as a major example of the "radical nationalism" of the time and praised for its realistic representation of life on the frontier in the 1880s. But it was forty years before many readers realized that the novel was also a subtle comment on fiction itself and that within it were hidden stories that revealed a world of "romance" within its "realist" representation of life. Such Is Life can be read as the first experimental novel in Australian literature and the first Australian literary expression of a twentieth-century sensibility of the provisionality of life and reality.' (Julian Croft, 'Joseph Furphy.' in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 230.)
McLaren discusses a number of Australian novels (all recently re-issued) which have been central to developing the way in which Australians and foreigners think about white society in this continent. He distinguishes several trends and traditions in describing and characterising Australia's social and political system. Whereas Clarke and Richardson present Australia as a prison, Palmer and Waten present it as a land offering the promise of freedom. Furphy, on the other hand, is seen as a writer 'who shows us a country seeming to offer plentitude but finally withholding its promise' (54).
McLaren concludes that the 'past expressed in these fictions variously produced values of solidarity, egalitarianism, harmony with the land, but their values remain circumscribed by fear of the powerless and the dispossessed, by the arrogance of the powerful, and by distrust of the outsider. Our future will be secure only as we accept continuity with the past, enter into dialogue with the differences of the present, and accept a common responsibility towards the land that supports us' (56).
'I want to propose that the incertitudes of Furphy's magnum opus provide the observant queer reader with an arousing focus on the late-nineteenth-century making of "sexuality" as a new regulatory system of sexual organisation. In advocating an engagement between Such is Life and queer theory, I want to ask, how does Furphy represent sexuality in Such is Life? and what is the analytical purchase provided by a queer reading of the text?'
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